13: Bianca Laureano
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be “attached” as a woman. In a specifically heteronormative context (to be “his,” or "someone’s girl”), but also more generally —to be daughter, a sister, any type of lover. In what ways is a woman's power within relationships gendered, and perhaps made vulnerable because of this?
The conversation I had with Bianca illuminates these questions. One of the photos included in this interview depicts an illustration of a naked woman, upon which the artist has written “Soy la mujer de mis sueños,” I am the woman of my dreams. This serenity is something I do not have, and am not quite sure if I believe to be possible. But Bianca manages to embody this attitude; she is thirty-eight, single, childless, and continuously emphasized her desire to be all of those things. We talked about relationships between much younger girls and older men, racial tension and sexual assault before Title IX, becoming sexually active at an early age, how porn impacted her self-image, and the sexual education of black and brown girls. —Sophia
Bianca Laureano is an award-winning LatiNegra sexologist, educator, and activist. She is the creator and host of LatinoSexuality.com, co-director of the feature-length documentary film Black Pervert which examines the intersections of Black communities and kink communities, founding member of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN), and the founder of The LatiNegrxs Project.
Emily Kimura is a student at Barnard College and a violinist at the Manhattan School of Music.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on November 20, 2016, in Bianca's Bronx apartment. Emily Kimura photographed and witnessed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
BIANCA: My girlhood was definitely framed within an immigrant experience because my parents migrated to the U.S. from Puerto Rico. I came out looking very different from the rest of my family, so my girlhood was also racialized.
I grew up in Maryland, and people don't wanna tell you this, but it's definitely Up South, so [my girlhood] was also southern. We went to D.C. like every weekend. So being in a space as highly politicized, policed, and military-based [as D.C.] really impacted my relationship with authority. I felt like I was constantly being controlled as a girl.
And because I'm the eldest, my parents tried to figure out their parenting style with me. It's like the early 90s, they had no idea what to do with me, and they were scared. I get it. We just got rid of Reagan.
SOPHIA: Can you talk more about the competing femininities of yourself and your younger sister? You made a point of saying that you look different from everyone else in your family, and I'm sure that impacted your relationship in some way.
BIANCA: My parents used to send us back to Puerto Rico every summer for the whole summer until we were fourteen or fifteen. And I remember seeing curls fall down my head because my racist family members didn't like my really curly hair, so they cut it into this really short pixie cut. And I remember looking in the mirror and crying, saying, "But people are going to think I'm a boy!" So this very gendered experience is also very racialized, because my family members did it because they didn't know how to control my hair. They were also like, "Ok, you've played in the sun enough." I don't think my parents realized that.
My gendered experience [of girlhood] was very different from my sister's. She has completely different experiences of being forced to wear a dress or to look a particular way. We were both critiqued because of how we looked, but it wasn't that I wasn't girly enough —I was just too black.
SOPHIA: How did being “blacker” than the rest of your family impact your self-esteem and identity formation?
BIANCA: I started high school in the early 1990s, and if you look at popular culture in the 90s, it was very affirming of black women, but in a very colorist way. If you look at an LL Cool J video or Wu Tang Clan, or whatever was out in the early 90s, it's girls who look like me, right? Light skin, green eyes, curly hair. The image of beauty in the black community was one that represented me, so in certain ways I benefitted from this fucked up structure of colorism without even recognizing it, because I just didn't have a black-consciousness that could be nurtured in my immediate community. We were the first people of color on our block, you know what I mean? We were the diversifying family.
So I learned about power when it comes to my gender-expression of femininity through this idea of desire. What does it mean to be a powerful woman? People think you're pretty because media says that people who look like you are attractive. I didn’t have anybody to talk to about that, or anybody who could affirm the changes that were going on with my body. I'm six feet tall now; I was like 5'10" in ninth grade. I still fit in my prom dress. I’ve always been a large person, and when I was fourteen, that made me look significantly older. So I would be able to attract older men who were clearly objectifying me, but I saw some type of power in that gaze and desire that I wasn't getting [elsewhere]. So I made what I would call poor decisions, but they're not decisions that I'm embarrassed about, or that I regret. I started engaging in sexual activity with older men at a very young age. As I grew up, even [after having experienced] that, I would always not so much reject, but challenge statements like: "If you're like a twenty year old man dating a fourteen year old girl, then what the fuck.”
BIANCA: I would challenge that and say "That was me, and I knew what I was doing!" It’s one thing to analyze the man, but [in my own experience], I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew that I wanted this pair of shoes, and that this dude has money and says he will buy me shoes.
SOPHIA AND EMILY: [laugh]
BIANCA: This is how I moved through the world, and I knew that. I made a conscious decision to spend my time with this person who would buy me things just to be around me, assuming that they would get something from me.
Maybe that was my entry into the sex-work and sexuality fields —which isn’t the best way, but I feel that a lot of young women have the same experience that I did. Even today, thinking about power dynamics in relation to how I want to talk to young girls, my desire is to write curricula for girls like me that interrogates what power [through desire] means and how to use it in a good way, or in a way that is healing and grounding versus like, "Oh you can get a free pair of sneakers." Like that's not powerful to me anymore.
SOPHIA: [laughs] Can you talk about you becoming sexually active and your parents' response to that?
BIANCA: It came out at school, and this is before Title IX and sexual harassment [regulations]. I was fourteen…twenty-four years ago? So it was a different world, and when people were sexually harassed, there wasn’t a protocol. Who would you go to? Old white people were the counsellors, so I was definitely not going to be like, “Oh, those black or Latino dudes over there are harassing me” to this white dude. I didn’t have the words to describe white supremacy in that context, but I understood that [my intervention] would involve a misuse of power. I wanted to maintain community versus maintaining a good relationship with school authority, so I had to make certain decisions. [Word of my sexual activity] got out because this dude told people even though he was like "Don't tell anybody!" And I was like "Ok."
BIANCA: But he started telling people and everybody found out. It was my first year in high school, so I was new [to school] and I didn't know anything. But he was really popular. He was on the varsity basketball team and I was on the JV basketball team. So it was this interesting situation in which a majority of the girls at school were like "You got with a dude that everybody wants. Why would he want you?” When it came out to my parents, they were like "How did this happen? Did you skip school?" And I was like, "No, I snuck out of the house at night."
SOPHIA AND EMILY: [laugh]
BIANCA: And they just didn't believe me! They completely underestimated my intellect and my ability to get the things that I wanted. And it wasn't like this dude lived far away. He lived like three blocks away because it's suburbia!
So they just didn't know what to do. They hadn’t really [educated me about sex], but they were big hippies, so we had those books in our house. We had The Joy of Sex, Our Bodies, Ourselves…so I was around those images and conversations, but nobody ever sat me down and was like "Ok, this is what it means when you start your period.”
I never had those concrete conversations, but my parents gave me other valuable information, like "You don't have to get married; you can just live with somebody if you want.” The house I grew up in was very heterosexist, but they didn't know any other way to raise us. Like, my parents had a really traditional courtship. One of the first times that they were alone was their wedding night, because they were always on chaperoned or group-dates.
My mom grew up in Puerto Rico when the Contraceptive Trials were going on, so she also told us, "You're not going to use the birth control pill because it killed Puerto Rican women." She had this very specific experience of historical trauma with birth control, [so my parents also influenced us with their personal experiences]. It wasn’t an educational space; it was more of a conversation. And remember, this was before the internet. We just had books and library cards, and adults weren’t that helpful because they were scared. So I was immediately forced to see a therapist, and that was my introduction to pathologizing sexuality, pleasure, and desire. And I was firm in my position, like "I didn't do anything wrong. He was the one who told everybody, not me, and it's 'cause he told his boys 'cause boys can't keep their mouths shut, and they told everybody else!"
BIANCA: But I think my parents were just super scared and didn't know what to do. I think they were scared that I would get pregnant, even when I was clear that I didn't want babies and I knew how to use a condom. So my sexual revolution was happening at the same time that my sister's gender identity was being more firmly grounded in masculinity, so I can see how our parents were like, bugging out. They were like "What the fuck are we doing to them?"
BIANCA: Growing up, there was Playboy and Hustler, which were some of the harder-core magazines. There was no Crash Pad. There was no queer-affirming porn unless it was men, or two women doing something to entertain the male gaze.
We had cable and there was Skinemax, the Cinemax after dark, which was the closest thing you could get to porn on television. I remember watching something and seeing Vanessa Del Rio, who is Puerto Rican, walk into some party, like that cheesy intro to porn, and she was really strong and powerful. And I remember being like "Wow, she could devour anybody she wants in that room. She could have whoever she wants. She could leave and everybody will remember her." That was the kind of power that I want to possess in a very particular way. She didn't have to say anything, she was fully clothed...and she was the only person of color in the scene! It was really affirming to see someone who also looked the way that she does. Her body has shifted in a variety of different ways, but in her earlier work, she was very soft and curvy. She has a huge following of people of color, especially men of color. The more I found out about her, the more I was like, "Wow! Her hair is really big and curly. She has dark nipples just like I do." She didn’t look exactly like me, but there were pieces of me [in her] that made me really want to watch [her videos]. And not to be aroused, but in order to figure out "How does she do this? Because I don't know what the fuck I'm doing!"
BIANCA: "Maybe I can think about how I want to walk into a room.” Or “What does it mean when I walk into a party?” I was really introverted and socially weird in my twenties, and I remember asking myself "What would Vanessa Del Rio do? How would she handle this situation?” When you're six feet tall, you look the way that I do, you have bigness everywhere, and you're proportional, you loom over everybody. People notice me when I walk into a room even if I don't want to be noticed. But thinking about what Vanessa Del Rio would do was a more reflexive activity centering around how I wanted to walk around the world.
As I aged, I started to collect her older VHS tapes and watch them again with a different point of view. I asked questions like "How is she bringing other people into her space? How is she finding comfort in her body?" I was always fat, and not like Vanessa Del Rio was ever fat, but she was fat in a way that no one else in porn was fat.
So it was interesting and valuable to witness her enjoying herself, being in her body, and saying "This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do. And this is what's right for me right now." And that was really important for me to see, not only as a young person, but in my twenties, as a conduit for reimagining myself and my relationship to sexual material. So it was Vanessa Del Rio that allowed me to be like this critic of almost everything sexuality-related.
I don't just want to be like "Porn's great, porn's great," because it's definitely a controversial topic. But if I want to talk about controversial topics, I'm going to talk about, for example, abortion access. Let's start with the real issue. And it's not access to porn.
BIANCA: Tristan [Taormino's] history doing educational porn is completely different. I didn't have access to that until I was in my late twenties, and she only started doing it fifteen years ago. She knows that I critique her work for being very white, very able-bodied, and [employing] very traditionally attractive actors in order to teach [the lessons]. And I get that [making those choices] is a marketing approach because it enables her to sell the stuff.
But I didn't consume her stuff until I was at a sex-toy gift exchange and inherited Bend Over Boyfriend on VHS tape, and I remember being like "This is so wack, but let's see how they do this." Like fast-forwarding. And normally I wouldn't fast-forward anything!
SOPHIA AND EMILY: [laugh]
BIANCA: It's interesting to see how porn is evolving today. I love that I now live in a world where I have friends who do porn so that they can be a full-time parent and not have to hire a nanny, or they can be an artist, or they can write the book that they've always wanted to write and still be able to make a livable, safe income.
SOPHIA: Have you found unique hurdles in the sexual education of women and girls of color, and what have you found to be their unique needs at the moment?
BIANCA: Yes, and I think that those needs shift and change depending on the time. Currently, we’re specifically seeing shifts in sex-ed curricula wanting to be more inclusive of LGBTQ people. But there are also laws in I believe thirteen states in which you can't talk about LGBTQ people. SIECUS [Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States] has this listed. It's the states that you would assume they are, and they don't really do sex-ed unless it's an after-school component that's not attached to the school. So something similar to a Girls Inc. or a Sadie Nash.
Inclusive curricula isn’t new for sex-educators who work at the grassroots level, but it is new for big research schools that get funding to do evidence-based research for the curricula, that the federal government then pays to implement in [the university’s] state. So they’re well-researched and well-funded, but when it comes down to [educating] the young person in the room, [the curricula] are not as effective as they could be.
The thing with evidence-based curricula is that they don’t always allow you to make the changes necessary to make the curriculum more effective [while preserving your federal funding]. Something that would be permitted, for example, is if you provide a scenario in which students have to think about decision-making, you can change the name [of the participants]. So it's not like, Bob and Lisa, it's Juanita and Jorge.
BIANCA: But if Juanita and Jorge are going to the malt shop...
BIANCA: There's no malt shop in New York City! Like, there's bodegas and McDonald's. But you’re not permitted to change the malt shop to McDonald’s —you only have permission to change the name. But that’s what the big-names who get funding to develop sex-ed curricula are putting out there.
Then there’s niche-curricula, like MySistahs, which is for black girls. And for Latinos, you have ¡Cuidate!, take care of yourself. So you put in the DVD for Cuidate and you have like this Aztec calendar, and it's 1990s clip art. And it's like floating in a clouded sky.
SOPHIA and EMILY: [laugh]
BIANCA: And then you hear like, Salsa music, which does not correspond to that community in Mexico. Like, it should be Mariachi or some fucking Selena, right?
BIANCA: And then you see people come in dancing like, a Tango. So you already have three different supposed depictions of this culture, and they don't connect! They don't have a curriculum for like, Native populations or Asian populations, but if they did, they would do something similar in which they would confuse like, Filipinos and Japanese and Sri Lankans. That's really what it looks like! It's trash.
BIANCA: Once people start laughing at a curriculum, not because it's supposed to be funny but because it’s so wrong, the curriculum's just not going to work. It has nothing to do with the facilitator —it’s that the curriculum sucks. People like myself know that, and we create curricula that is more effective for certain populations. So I acknowledge that if somebody wants to do sex-ed curricula for Syrian refugees, I am not the person to come to. I can help you figure out layout or something, but you need to hire so-and-so because she's Syrian. So I do a lot of that networking stuff, too.
The bodies of black and brown girls have always been policed in a very particular way in the curriculum, because it always assumes that girls are the culprits of all the things that happen. So it's slut-shaming, there's tons of respectability-politics, there's tons of victim-blaming, and that's not helpful or useful for anybody.
I remember being at the national sex-ed conference last year and being so pissed off that everybody wanted to talk about a gunman going into Planned Parenthood, but at the same time, Daniel Holtzclaw was on trial for rape and assault, and he's the ex-police officer who was targeting black woman specifically for their assault history. Like, why was nobody talking about this at this sex-ed conference? But everybody wants to talk about this gunman at Planned Parenthood. Which...there's always a gunman at Planned Parenthood.
BIANCA: These are open-carry states! I just remember being so in shock that none of these sexologists are talking about the warped idea of justice that's being enforced on these black victims, rape survivors, and women who have been historically incarcerated —all of whom were targeted because [Holtzclaw] knew that nobody would believe them. And he's a Eurasian man, which complicates his relationship to his racialized identity. We aren’t having these conversations but y'all want to stand up here being like "Oh my gosh, my Planned Parenthood ID. I have to cover it."
SOPHIA and EMILY: [laugh]
SOPHIA: Can you talk about the Woman of Color Sexual Health Network?
BIANCA: The Woman of Color Sexual Health Network was our response to not only a void of opportunities for people of color in the field, specifically women, but also livable wages to do the work that we do. [My colleagues and I] formed the Women of Color Sexual Health Network eight years ago when we were at a national sexuality conference, and there were just nineteen women of color out of maybe one thousand participants. We found each other almost immediately, and realized that we ought to organize something, and so we did.
[WOCSHN creates opportunities for the inclusion of women of color in the field of sexuality, sexology, and sexual health, and challenges the white supremacy these fields were built upon. Read more about WOCSHN here.]
SOPHIA: What do you feel that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
BIANCA: Drink more water and get more rest. That's a very first-world thing because not everybody has access to water and rest. I grew up not drinking water. I would have sleepovers with friends and their parents would give us like, Pepsi for breakfast, and they'd be like "There's water in the Pepsi.” And that's a very working-class kind of experience. I didn't start intentionally drinking water until I was like, twenty-seven, which is bananas because water has changed my life.
Then we can affirm each other. I think that's really important in a time where people are like, “The world's on fire and I don't know who my enemy is.” I don't always practice what I preach, but I try to. There was a moment in which I was like "I want to compliment at least five women throughout my day," and that has changed to writing love letters and sending postcards. Little things like that that people really appreciate to remind them that they’re important, I’m thinking about them, and they’re cared for.
Over the past two years there have been a lot of femmes who have killed themselves in my life. Queer femmes, femmes of color, trans femmes. That's heartbreaking, and sometimes someone sending you a note in the mail can be like "Ok, I can last one more day because I got this thing. I'm gonna put it on my mirror. And then every time I see it, I'll take a deep breath and feel like I can do this today."
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